This blog is a follow-up to Part 1: The Power of Vulnerability. If you have not yet read part one, I’d urge you to do so before continuing on.
Inadequate. Inferior. Useless. Regret. These are the feelings of shame. As a Hermosa Beach therapist, I am familiar with the powerful effects of shame as a potent, painful and toxic emotion. It is an emotional response at the root of low self-esteem. Many counselors believe that shame is the origin of dysfunction in families and that all reckless behaviors are reactions to it.
In Brene Brown’s powerful Ted Talk about the power of vulnerability, she discusses vulnerability as “the birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging and love”. In contrast, she claims that shame is an emotion that prohibits us from being vulnerable. Let’s explore this in greater depth.
Shame often materializes when we feel emotionally vulnerable about something and think that others have the ability to judge us, and ultimately attack and reject us. Shaming makes us feel powerless to act and express ourselves. You want to run outside and kick your heels in the air and shout about your day, but you stop yourself because you think about someone telling you not to be childish; you want to strive to succeed or speak your mind about something, but you worry about people saying you’re not good enough or criticizing you. Shame becomes internalized as that inner voice that repeats painful things that others have said in the past: you’re stupid, lazy, mean, or just not good enough.
On the opposite end of the spectrum – vulnerability is essential in most close relationships – being able to be yourself, let go of your inhibitions and act free from social limitations or anyone else’s code of conduct. Shame squashes any chance that we can show our vulnerability – a willingness to show up and let ourselves be fully seen. How can others really know us if we are constantly afraid of what people might see?
Those who feel shame have negative, false beliefs about their basic abilities and worth. Shame hurts your self-image, your belief that you can change things you don’t like about yourself or your situation. Where guilty people believe they DID something wrong; shameful people believe they just ARE wrong. Unlike productive guilt, shame doesn’t go away after we’ve taken responsibility for our mistakes. In fact, it often gets worse in time, hitting us in triggered waves, sometimes for years, sometimes for our entire lives. Unlike guilt, shame is something you will likely never talk to others about.
There can be many underlying causes for the experience of shame, but one thing is for certain, there is almost always a “shamer”. The shaming could have happened early in life, or more recently, with a family member, spouse, or employer. Shaming experiences are also very individualized – in that what might shame you, may not shame me. We find certain things shameful based on our own lives and experiences. Having said that, here are a few potential causes that could result in shame:
Shame can become an integral part of your self-image or sense of self-worth, leading you to feel like your whole self is flawed, bad or unwanted. Unfortunately, these effects are so powerful that they can easily be passed on to others, making shame a continuous cycle.
In my Hermosa Beach practice, I frequently work with clients to address the underlying causes and negative impact of shame. The first step to overcoming shame is always calling it out. Name the shame. Talk about it with people you trust because shame only works when it keeps you thinking that you’re all alone. Talk about your feelings, ask for what you need – doing this can help you understand what makes you have feelings of shame and be more aware when feelings of shame is triggered.
Also, work at creating an environment of transparency, patience and forgiveness. Risk being vulnerable, being yourself – whatever imperfections that might entail. Don’t try to explain, defend, or deny, just tell the truth about who you are, where you’ve been, what you’ve learned, how you feel, and what you want. Revealing all of your vulnerabilities to others will help you feel empowered and liberated.
Needing an unbiased person to talk to is nothing to be ashamed of either. Dr. Kelly Mothner is an experienced counselor in Hermosa Beach, California, and welcomes your calls and visits. Contact her at (310) 892-2572 and set up your first meeting. Chances are you will feel much better about yourself and your relationships with others.